Don Johnson Reveals the Life Experience That Fuels His Creative Drive
Some characters you just can’t shake. Which is why when Don Johnson Zooms with Parade wearing a light blue zip-up sweater and a white golf hat, the pastel color palette can’t help but evoke his role as the inimitably cool cop James “Sonny” Crocket on Miami Vice that rocketed him to fame in 1984.
The actor, 73, is speaking from his Santa Barbara-area home, where the wall behind him is filled with black-and-white photographs of his life and career. Those, he says, are only a recent addition by his wife of 24 years, Kelley . “I didn’t want my kids to grow up around this shrine to my job,” says Johnson. “If you’re a banker, you don’t have dollar bills or loan documents on the wall—'and then I made this loan!’” he laughs. “So I usually keep the ‘Don Johnson branding thing’ down to a low roar.” No easy feat considering his storied life and career.
Johnson was born in Missouri to teenage parents Fredie and Nell, who divorced when he was 11. He stumbled into acting in high school and pursued a path in theater, struggling for a decade. “I was living back and forth between unemployment and low-budget movies, and I was 33, going, You know, am I gonna stick around and do this?” remembers Johnson. “All my friends are getting married and buying houses and cars, and I’m struggling to pay the rent.” Then he nabbed Miami Vice and made history—while also, of course, making headlines for his famous relationships (including two marriages to Melanie Griffith) that led to six children. He’s since had roles in Nash Bridges, Django Unchained, Knives Out and Watchmen. And after playing Jane Fonda’s love interest, Arthur, in the 2018 comedy Book Club, Johnson is back—this time as her fiancé—in the film’s sequel, Book Club: The Next Chapter (in theaters May 12).
“Not only does it hold up to the first one, in some ways I think it’s a lot better,” says Johnson of the story that sees Fonda’s character, Vivian, and her friends (played by Candice Bergen, Mary Steenburgen and Diane Keaton) traveling to Italy for her bachelorette party—a rollicking trip through beautiful cities, bottles of wine and plenty of mischief. “I can’t tell you how magical it was to watch them together,” says Johnson of the starring actresses. “They’re so funny, and they’re so gifted.” And they’re sharing a sentiment Johnson stands by in his own life. “Ultimately, it’s about how love can find you at any age,” he says, “and that in the end, that’s all we all have: Who you love, and how much of it did you give?”
He talks about his challenging childhood, his career highs, his wild past and the blissful balance he’s found today.
Parade: What’s the most fun about playing Arthur—and how much of that fun is being able to work with Jane Fonda and the other legendary actresses?
Johnson: Well, it’s all about that! I adore them all. Jane, she’s a marvel. There’s a line in the movie that says, “She threw out the playbook and just created her own,” and nothing could be more accurate. Jane hears a different calling than the rest of us and has the courage and the fortitude and the heart to bring it. And she’s so direct, and so funny. She tells me the funniest tales when I get her to start talking about her past—which she will do at the drop of a hat. You just throw out a question, and she’ll tell me everything. And sometimes, I don’t want to know! “Jane, whoa! TMI!”
What were some of your best laughs on set?
I remember when I showed up, there was a reception on the roof of this beautiful hotel. And I walked in and Andy Garcia, who—Andy auditioned with me for Miami Vice, to play Tubbs. It got right down to the very end, and I had no power to say anything. In fact, I still have no power, I abdicated that a long time ago! But anyway, we’re friends. We play golf together. So I strolled into the reception and Andy walked up and goes, “Still on the menu, I guess?” [laughs] I thought that was à propos. Andy’s great this way too: Put all that ego stuff aside and be the arm candy.
Book Club: The Next Chapter is one of many movies and shows starring your peers that is truly proliferating now. How does it feel to be a part of that?
It’s a joyful time for me. When I was younger, the lane I was considered in was very narrow. And now I get asked to be in movies that are quite different. My characters are quite different. It’s not all just dad parts.
Speaking of being younger, what memories of your childhood stick with you most?
I had an amazing childhood, going back and forth between Missouri and Kansas. I came from a very simple, farming, lower-middle-class family. I had a lot of challenges when I was young—not physically, but emotionally and psychologically. I’m not going to get into a psychology session [laughs] but I only later discovered that’s what lights the fire in creativity, and that those challenges are what is the fuel.
What were your parents like? And what kind of influence did they have you?
They were very young when I was born, and in a sense we kind of grew up together. My mother—she was a beautician, a stylist—was very vivacious and outgoing. My father passed on his salt-of-the-earth values. We began with a little farm in Missouri up until I was about 4. And then he heard they were hiring at Boeing Aircraft, in Wichita, Kansas, so he went into the aircraft industry. He was just one of those guys that could do anything: master carpenter, master mechanic, a great engineer, terrific sense of humor and a really hardworking man. Those humble beginnings and core values have helped guide me and keep me on a path that has been very, very, very blessed.
What were you like in high school?
I was a wild thing, as you can imagine! [laughs] I was very inventive, I got in a lot of trouble, I got kicked out a few times. I graduated from Wichita South High School and that’s where my life took a turn. I was in a business class right after lunch, and about the third day in [the teacher] goes, “If you fall asleep in my class one more time, I’m gonna ask you to leave.” The next thing I know, I wake up and she’s telling me to go see the counselor who says, “Well, it’s either play football and take another semester in school, or there’s this drama and speech class...” I told Dr. Karen Pyle [who ran the drama class], “I need this class to graduate.” She says, “Can you sing?” I went, “Err…well, okay, yeah, a little.” And she went, “Can ya dance?” And I said “Uhhh…sure, yeah, I can dance.” And she said, “Be at the audition today, and if you make it into the musical, I’ll let you in.” I learned the piece, and I went to the audition that afternoon, and I got the lead in the musical. It was Tony in West Side Story. What a life-altering experience. I ate it up, I loved it, I couldn’t get enough of it—and apparently, I was pretty good!
Wow. So that was your turning point?
Yeah. And when I got in her class, she saw something in me that I did not see in myself and started plying me with the classics—Shakespeare, Tennessee Williams, some of the existential playwrights. She prepared me for an audition for the University of Kansas to join a summer repertory program. I was one of the eight people chosen out of the entire U.S. Then I got hired out of the University of Kansas for the American Conservatory Theatre in San Francisco. I thought I was going to be be a stage actor for the rest of my life!
And then your role on Miami Vice changed everything. What was that sudden success like? Viewers certainly imagined your life behind the scenes as pretty wild and fabulous…
It was. [laughs] For the first year and a half, I was like, I’m just gonna stay focused here. I’d put in some pretty good struggles—I didn’t want it to all of a sudden…poof! It was kind of the end of the second season when I got my nomination for an Emmy, I realized Oh! Maybe there’s something to this. At the time, there were only three or four networks and we were getting like 40 million people a week watching our show. Those are the kinds of numbers that people would lose their minds over now. So I didn’t sleep for five years. I was filming most of the time, and then on the weekends I was shooting magazine covers, and then occasionally—when no one was looking—I was out partying.
Looking back, what do you make of that time in your life now? You had a number of high-profile relationships and marriages…
Well, to be fair, it seemed like I had a high number of marriages, but I always just married the same girl twice. [laughs] You know, I’ve had a big life. That period of my life is a blur, and yet I remember phenomenal things happening. It was a magical time. I found myself invited to the White House, I found myself meeting the Pope. And some of the actors we launched in Miami Vice are a who’s who of big stars today: Bruce Willis, Michael Chiklis, Liam Neeson, Julia Roberts, the list goes on. I mean, I’m a farm boy from Missouri. It was a dream.
You also recorded a number of albums in the 1980s—one went platinum—and had a hit song with Barbra Streisand, “Till I Loved You.” Was it intimidating recording with her?
I think the word “hubris” comes to mind when I think about saying yes to recording with Barbra Streisand… [laughs] Or chutzpah. But I somehow pulled it off, and she was very generous with me, and made me sound good and look good.
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What is your life like today? How do you spend your free time?
I’m pretty active. I hike and swim and I train three or four days a week, because for me, it’s about the quality of my life these days so I don’t go, “I can’t do that because of my knee.” I have six kids in batches of three: There’s Jesse , Alexander  and Dakota ; then a 10-year hiatus; and then Grace , Jasper  and Deacon . And I want to party with them. I want to hang out. Those kids are dynamos, each and every one of them, and they’re a lot of fun to be with. So I spend a lot of my time hanging out with my kids and laughing and them making fun of me. My sons are all great musicians, and they’ve so far surpassed me. Now I’m the guy who just, “Oh, Dad, you can sit this one out. Here—here’s a tambourine. Play the tambourine.” And Kelley and I travel a lot. I’m having the time of my life, man.
You said you were 33 when you began Miami Vice, which is how old your daughter Dakota Johnson is now—a successful actress in her own right. Is there anything you’ve told her you wish you knew at her age?
When she was starting to work, she would call me up and say, “I’ve got this thing and I don’t know how to handle it.” And I’d say “Lemme tell you how I handled that badly…” She does a darn good job at managing her world. I am so proud of her I could burst. I’m proud of all of them. They are all spectacular people. Must be their mothers.
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You’ve been with your wife Kelley for almost 25 years. What makes her the right partner for you?
Obviously, she’s a saint. I was with Bob Dylan one time, and I was having relationship issues, and Bob looks up at me and goes, “Well, see, love is about kindness, trust and respect, isn’t it?” And that’s the embodiment of Kelley. It’s kindness, trust and respect, and we have that with each other. We’re lovers and friends and it’s fun. She’s an amazing woman.
What are you focused on in your life right now?
I’m having a wonderful experience in my world right now. I’m a longtime practitioner of meditation, so I’m familiar with the inner journey. As a younger actor—a younger anything—your ambition sort of drives the bus; you’re in the expanding mode. And this period of time, there’s a confidence and a courage and a comfort that comes with getting older that is unexpected. If you accept and surrender to the fact that you get out of bed and some body parts are going to hurt, and say, “Well, that’s just part of the journey,” then it really can be the richest time of your life.
When and where are you happiest?
All the time. Anywhere I am. Anywhere I am, I’m the happiest. When I have all my kids around me, that’s a happy day.
And what about your next chapter? How have your 70s been for you, and what do you hope your 80s will bring?
My 70s are rockin’. I mean, I’m cruising, man. And in my 80s, I hope I remember the 70s!
Book you’re reading: I’m reading Robot-Proof by the president of Northeastern University, Joseph Aoun. Since I have a 17-year-old applying to colleges, I wanted to take the opportunity to read some things about how the guys in higher education are looking at the future.
What you’re watching: I watch sports. I have a hard time watching movies and shows but for a while there was so much production going on, the quality suffered. So I would start watching them and I’d be in the middle of it and I’d go, “Wait a minute, this just keeps going on and on, it never resolves, where’s the structure here?”
What you’re listening to: I’m listening to a book about the way that animals communicate with each other.
Morning person or night person? All throughout my life, I’ve been a night person, but I’m starting to appreciate the early mornings. On the occasion where I have an early morning call for work, I like getting up before everyone else. I like to have a little time to myself. I meditate every morning, so that starts my day.
Job you’d do instead of acting: I think I’d be a pretty good photojournalist. I’m an action junkie, so probably in someplace dangerous.
Hidden talent: I’m a very good carpenter, although I couldn’t prove that to you right now. My wife’s been dying for me to build her some stairs for her garden, and for about three or four years I’ve been saying “Yeah, I’m gonna get around to that.”
Meal you eat most often: I’m very simple about my world: protein, fat and vegetables and I’m cruisin’. Like tacos. I love tacos.
What you own a lot of: I don’t own a lot of anything. I’ll tell you what I could do: I could go through my closet and go through half the crap that’s in there, ‘cause I don’t wear it! I don’t own a bunch of houses, I don’t own cars anymore… that’s part of the “expanding” world, and I’m in the “let go” world. So…not a lot.
Habit you’d change about yourself? Having fewer opinions about things. Because the more you stock up on opinions, that means you kind of have to make judgments, and I don’t really want to be judgmental. So that’s my avocation right now. I want to just appreciate everything for what and how it is.
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